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Psalm 1: The Pursuit of Happiness

Larry Wilson

If there's one thing everyone wants, it's to be happy! The U.S. constitution even identifies "the pursuit of happiness" as a fundamental human right. But if everyone seeks happiness, then why do so few find it? Why is happiness so elusive? Could they be pursuing it in the wrong direction? Take a close look at Psalm 1. In Psalm 1, God says that all the ways by which people pursue happiness actually boil down to two basic ways.

Psalm 1

Psalm 1 literally begins, "O the blessedness of the man" (my translation). Then it describes the kind of person who will brim over with happiness.

Verses 1-3 identify the goal—the truly happy person, the person to be imitated, is the righteous person.

Verse 1 recites what the righteous person does not do. He does not engage in any conduct that will interfere with his relationship with God. He "walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers." He avoids any attachment to the world which adulterates his walk with God (cf. Jas. 4:4).

Verse 2 describes what he does do: "his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night." He positively delights in Jehovah and his "torah." The Hebrew word "torah" is broader than our English word "law." By "law" we mean "rules." "Torah" includes rules, but more broadly, it means "instruction." It means God's Word. The righteous person literally fills his every thought, his every attitude, his entire life with passionate devotion to Jehovah and his Word. He zestfully pursues an exclusive love-affair with Jehovah and his Word.

Verse 3 illustrates this: "He is like a tree planted by streams of water." This makes him fruitful ("that yields its fruit in its season") and vital ("and its leaf does not wither"). In short, he thrives and is productive to the glory of God ("in all he does, he prospers").

Verses 4-5, on the other hand, describe sinners.

Verse 4 uses another illustration: "The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away." If the righteous are like trees, the wicked are like chaff, the husks separated at threshing from the grain. Chaff is "without root below, without fruit above."[1] It's "rootless, weightless, useless."[2] Therefore, in the end, chaff blows away.

Verse 5 is very emphatic: "Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous." John the Baptist sounded this same theme as he warned people to prepare for the kingdom of God and its coming king—Matthew 3:12—"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Verse 6 caps off the Psalm by contrasting the ends of the righteous and wicked. The righteous can look forward to a positive destiny: "The Lord knows the way of the righteous" (vs. 6a). The wicked, on the other hand, face a negative destiny: "But the way of the wicked will perish" (vs. 6b).

Four Key Themes

Take note of four key themes which Psalm 1 sounds. These themes are sounded all through the Psalms, and all through the Bible.

1. The living God is the "fount of every blessing," the true source of all happiness. This is the precise opposite of the lies of the world and the devil. "Turn away from God," they say, "Turn away from his ordinances. God will make you miserable. Sin will make you happy." This lie is very effective because it's half true. In fact, there is pleasure in sin for a season, but only because in order to sin, you have to use—or misuse—God's created blessings. And only for a season! Ultimately sin produces misery because it cuts you off from the true source of happiness and pleasure—the living God. Psalm 1 does not tell you how to work up your own happiness; it tells you how to be blessed by God, the true and eternal source of happiness.

2. The living God, our creator, holds all humankind accountable. There will be a day of judgment on which all will appear before him. And he is the holy, impartial judge who will mete out perfect justice. It won't matter what other people think of you; it won't matter whether you're rich or poor; it won't matter whether you're red, brown, yellow, black, or white. God is no respecter of persons. He'll scrutinize everything without partiality in the light of his perfect holiness and justice—everything! Ecclesiastes 12:14, "God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil."

3. There are only two kinds of people, and they're defined by their relation to God—note the clear-cut distinction this Psalm makes between "the righteous" and "the wicked" (or "sinners"). It's very important that we notice this in our day; God says there's no third category! It's tempting to say, "I may not have the passion for God and his Word that Psalm 1 describes, but I'm no murderer. And even when I do sin, it's kind of an aberration. I'm not really that kind of person." But God says that if you are not righteous in the way that he describes it—utterly devoted to God and his Word inside and out—then you in fact are in the other category, the wicked. You are that kind of person.

4. God says that there are only two possible destinies for people. Note the stunning contrast between the first and the last words of Psalm 1, "Blessed" and "will perish." In other words, people end up either with God's blessing or with God's curse. Again, it's very important in our day that we note well that there are only two options—heaven or hell. God says there is no third option! There's no exit. You have to deal with your creator for all eternity—one way or the other.

"The Moral of the Story"

Psalm 1 (together with Psalm 2) functions as preface to whole Book of Psalms. It sets the theme and the tone. And it unflinchingly confronts us with the same basic choice that we hear in Deuteronomy 30. Choose life. Serve God fully and live. Or choose death. Fail to serve God fully and perish!

So here is "the moral of the story"! Do you want to be happy? truly happy? forever happy? Then make sure that every fiber of your being—your thinking, your feeling, your speaking, your doing—is always and thoroughly saturated with pure and passionate devotion to God and his Word. Make sure that the living God of the Bible is your all in all. God says that this is the way to get his blessing of perfect and everlasting happiness.

The end.

"But Wait a Minute!"

"But wait a minute!" someone says. "I felt guilty just hearing verses 1-3, let alone all those laws that I'm supposed to delight in. I don't really match up to the truly happy man. In fact, I don't even come close. What about all my sins? Haven't I already forfeited this happiness? Even if God would let me start fresh from now on, how could I possibly maintain that level of pure devotion to God? What about my indwelling sin? What about my sinfulness, my sin-fullness?"

That's exactly right, and the fact is that we really don't understand Psalm 1 if we think it congratulates us and says "I'm OK, you're OK. It's only those really wicked people who we don't even know, who we just hear about on the news, who have to worry."

Instead, we'd really better take seriously that this Psalm describes God's expectations and standard for his image-bearers. He created us; we belong to him. And he created us for himself; we owe him. He has the right to expect us to listen only and always to him, and we have the obligation to do it. Psalm 1 doesn't describe a super-spiritual, above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty type of person. It describes the mere ABCs of our most basic, rudimentary duty. God holds us accountable to at least this standard.

In other words, to fall short of deeply, constantly loving God and his Word as Psalm 1 describes it is sin! To fail to love the living God of the Bible with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and to fail to love what God loves—his Word, his ordinances, his church, his people—is wicked! Even benign neglect of these things is tantamount to seating yourself among the scoffers. Sometimes we congratulate ourselves by saying "even though I don't feel like obeying God, I do discipline myself to obey anyway." But Psalm 1 says that it's also desperately wicked to not feel like obeying God! It's sin!

And every sin merits God's wrath and curse, both in this life and the next, so that God is right in all he says and righteous in all his judgments. Nothing bad ever happens to us in this life that is worse than we deserve if, in fact, what we actually deserve is God's white-hot wrath! We don't really understand Psalm 1 unless we see that it exposes our iniquity and condemns us as guilty.

The Fulfillment of Psalm 1

But it's also important to remember that God didn't give Psalm 1 directly to us. "A text out of context is a pretext." And we take Psalm 1 out of context if we forget that God inspired it under the old covenant, "under the law." Read the Old Testament. The Old Testament saints understood that they were sinners. And they knew that their God is holy. But they also knew that their God graciously provided means for them to receive forgiveness and be reconciled with God. All through the Psalms, in fact, we find admissions of sin, expressions of contrite repentance, faith, and reliance on God through his ordained atoning sacrifices. And God graciously accepted these sacrifices offered in faith.

But God never accepted the Old Testament sacrifices as ends in themselves. They were sacraments that kept lifting his people's faith up to God, that kept assuring them that somehow God was taking care of their sins. The New Testament book of Hebrews says, nevertheless, that they actually served also as constant reminders that the sin problem was still there—it had not yet been settled. But in the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was holy, harmless, undefiled. He fulfilled all righteousness. He fulfilled Psalm 1.

The True Pursuit of True Happiness

Thank God, Jesus Christ is the one who merits the blessedness of Psalm 1. He is the truly happy man, the truly righteous man who stood up under the scrutiny of God's holy judgment and received God's promised blessing. And—thank God!—he did so not just for himself, but as our representative, as our mediator, as our Savior.

Jesus Christ performed all our duty for us. And he paid all our debt for us. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Why? Psalm 1:6 warns that "the way of the wicked shall perish." But Jesus came because "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). Jesus accomplished all righteousness in order to rescue those whom the Father had given him.

Therefore, in perfect justice, God gave his full blessing to Jesus Christ. He raised Jesus from the dead and he exalted him, giving him the name that's above every name. And the exalted Christ gives that full blessing to all who belong to him, to every one who is in him. To truly pursue true happiness, flee to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith.

When you flee to Jesus Christ, he changes your standing with God. When God unites you to Christ, he justifies you. He declares his once-for-all verdict that you are righteous, so that you escape his curse and receive his full blessing. He adopts you. He embraces you as his beloved child and gives himself to you as your loving Father.

Jesus Christ also changes your life before God (verses 1-3). When God joins you to Christ, he regenerates you. By his Holy Spirit he gives you a new heart, a new love, a new loyalty, new desires, and himself as a new master. He begins to sanctify you. In union with Christ you die to sin and rise to newness of life; in Christ you begin to put sin to death in your life; in Christ you begin to turn from, to resist, to fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil; in Christ you begin to delight in God's Word. You discover that while you once found it impossible to resist the siren song of the world, now the voice of Jesus is becoming so much sweeter to you that the world is losing its allure. You actually find yourself beginning to meditate on his Word day and night.

The Spirit of Christ does this progressively, rather than instantly, and he uses means—means of grace—especially the Word and sacraments in the fellowship of his covenant community. Since you so desperately need his sanctifying work, sink your roots deep into the fountain of living water (Jer. 17:13; John 7:37-39). Diligently use the means of grace. Don't "sit in the seat of scoffers" (vs. 1). Instead, seize every opportunity to "stand in the congregation of the righteous" (vs. 5). Meditate on God's Word day and night.

Hope in the Lord. He'll cause you to produce "fruit" and "green leaves"—in spite of affliction, even using affliction as a means to make you produce more and better fruit. Look at Jeremiah 17:7-8. Even if they face drought and scorching sun, God's planted trees thrive and flourish when they drink deeply of the fountain of living water—the living God himself, who draws near to his people in his mediator through his Holy Spirit working by and with his Word and sacraments. Abide in Christ and you will bear much fruit (John 15). He will bear fruit through you (Rom. 7:4).

In reliance on the grace of God in Christ, then, and in pursuit of true happiness, more and more despise and turn from the counsel of the wicked, the way of sinners, the seat of scoffers. Instead, more and more pity those who are ensnared in sin, more and more fear for their eternal destiny, more and more pray for them, more and more try to make Jesus Christ known to them.

Moreover, Jesus Christ changes your destiny before God. "God knows the way of the righteous" (vs. 6a). This means a whole lot more than just that he knows about the way of the righteous. He knows about the way of the wicked too. But he knows the way of the righteous. He knows it in the sense that he knows you; he knows everything there is to know about you; and he cares. He knows your way so personally, so lovingly, and so intimately that he causes all things to work together for your ultimate good, your ultimate happiness. He knows your way so personally, so lovingly, and so intimately that not even a hair can fall from your head apart from his will!

"But the way of the wicked will perish" (vs. 6b). Note that it's not just that the wicked will perish (although they will). But more than that, their very way will perish. When the kingdom of glory comes, the kingdom of evil will be abolished. Then each and every one who is righteous in Jesus Christ will enjoy perfect blessedness in God's presence in a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells, saved from even the presence or possibility of sin and its effects.

When this is your hope, the true pursuit of true happiness radically transforms your priorities. You more and more cultivate an eternal perspective (compare Psalm 73). If this is your hope, then stop envying the wicked, wanting to enjoy their temporal advantages. Keep remembering that, in spite of temporary appearances, they are "like chaff"—rootless, weightless, ultimately fruitless. No matter how beautiful or powerful or important they might seem to be, in the judgment they'll be "blown away" as forever irrelevant. But you! Lay up your treasures in heaven. Shuck off temporal distractions so that you may pursue eternal happiness. Jim Elliot gave his life trying to bring the gospel to the Auca Indians in Ecuador. He had written in his journal, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." Amen! "God knows the way of the righteous" (vs. 6a).

Pursue happiness with all your might! Pursue true happiness, lasting happiness, everlasting happiness! How? Pursue the living and true God—the fountain of living water. Pursue him through the mediator he sent, Jesus Christ, his Son, our Savior. Pursue him through the means of grace he ordained, the Word and sacraments, those "weak and foolish" tools of his powerful, wonder-working Holy Spirit. Seek happiness where it can be found—in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—and you will find it.

Endnotes

[1] F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted 1975), 87.

[2] Derek Kidner, Tyndale OT Commentary on Psalms, vol. 1 (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 49.

Larry Wilson is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as an evangelist of the Presbytery of the Northwest to plant Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada. Ordained Servant Online, June-July 2011.

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